Every so often I get asked “What kind of diet do you recommend? What is the best diet?” Keto? Paleo? Mediterranean Diet? Vegetarian? Whole 30? Intermittent Fasting? Low Fat Diet?… You know, for many years I was hunting for the answer to this very question. It felt like a quest, an elusive holy grail, and I thought, ‘if only I had the answer…’, then perhaps, I could find a sense of balance, fulfillment and health...
This question brought me to nutrition school a decade ago. I seriously needed to find out what the right diet is. I was excited and eager to learn. To my surprise, rather than finding out about the right way of eating, I received a of information and many controversial views. “The best diet” seemed to keep on changing from subject to subject, from presenter to presenter. Every teacher advocated for a different diet. Each of them felt that the one they presented was the best (of course). They all made a lot of sense when I heard about them, at first, and, every time I thought to myself “this is it!”.
In the class about vegetarian and vegan diet, we learned that one can get complete protein from plants and get so much amazing fibre with it. Sounded great, so I jumped right in and made myself dishes full of legumes… however, very quickly I felt that my body wasn’t happy and I had a real need for some animal products. Soon after, in sports nutrition, our teacher shared that he basically only eats steak and vegetables. Yea, sounded perfect! So I tried this for a day or two, and realized that my body definitely needed something more than that. It went on and on like this. You can imagine that I was quite confused and disappointed. I just wanted someone to tell me ‘the right answer’!
I left nutrition school with a lot of information, still I didn’t know the answer to my question. So I kept on studying and reading, took workshops and courses, travelled and talked to experts. I tried out all kinds of diets and cleanses on myself. I went from eating a raw diet to doing keto, from extreme liver flushes to master cleanses… the theories were so plausible; however, when applied practically, none of it made me feel amazing. I must have done something wrong, I thought, there must be something not quite right with my body. Why was it not working for me?
Diets were not only not working for me, but in cases, more harmful than beneficial. Every time I tried a new fad diet, I was at first excited, thinking that I found the solution to my problem, however not long after, I felt there was something missing. I wasn’t fulfilled. I had this pattern, whereby I’d get to a point where I couldn’t handle the restrictions anymore, my body revolted and then I binged on all the ‘forbidden foods’. It was a relief, and, at the same time, I felt terrible, like I’d failed. So then I went on indulging for a few days, quite extremely, till I felt sick and started looking for another ‘solution’, another diet or cleanse. This constant roller coaster was devastating for me at the time, and, certainly not healthy for my body, nor my mind.
You can imagine, it was quite a journey for me, eventually I came to a point where I realized that there was actually nothing ‘wrong’ with me, or with my body. It was the whole concept of ‘finding the right diet’ that was inherently flawed! ‘What is the best diet or the right diet is actually a question that really only allows a right or wrong / a good or bad kind of answer. A more appropriate question to ask would be: ’What are the best foods for my body (and heart) at this time?’ Or ‘Which foods are difficult for my body right now? Which foods are helpful? What is nourishing for me? What is depriving me?’ These kinds of questions lead one back to the body and what it has been saying all along…
The truth is that we are all very different. Every body is different and has different challenges and different needs. We have different make ups. We have different lifestyles. We all are at different points in our journey. Also we have different means and resources. All of that needs to be factored in, in order to give a suitable answer to ‘what should I eat?’ Btw ‘should' isn’t really a word I recommend using. If we ‘should on’ ourselves, things usually just backfire. A ‘should’ doesn’t come from a real place and doesn’t lead to a real outcome. If you try and change your diet, because you feel pressured by what other people or theories say, do you think you’ll have success and results you’re longing for? You already know the answer…
When people ask me what kind of diet I recommend as a holistic nutritional consultant, I always say “it depends…” It depends on your situation, on your circumstances, on what your body needs right now, on what you can digest, on your make up, on your health history, on your location, on the season, on your goals, on your current lifestyle, on where you’re at in your journey, on how much time you have available to invest into shopping and meal prep, etc… because of all of this needs to be considered, I have to say there isn’t one diet I recommend.
The word ‘diet’ isn’t my favourite word either. People often have negative associations with diets; usually it means more restrictions, less fun, missing out on treats, deprivation, hunger, etc. Indeed, that doesn’t sound nourishing, and, it doesn’t have to be like that. If a diet isn’t nourishing on all levels, it’s missed its purpose. It’s also not about first cutting out all your favourite foods, but about adding in what’s nurturing. Step by step, maybe one little new thing every week, then naturally the foods that don’t really serve your body, gradually become less staples for you. And, maybe eventually they may lose their hold on you altogether. However, if you're going through a serious health problem, I do suggest to be more 'strict' with what you eat, in order to support your body in your recovery.
Before I answer ‘what kind of diet I recommend’, I have a thorough nutrition and lifestyle assessment with each and every client, in which I ask detailed questions, and listen, with care. How I work with my clients is very individual and with regular reporting back; I move at the pace that is organic for the client. It doesn’t make sense to just impose a diet onto yourself because someone else (especially if they don’t know you) says so, or, because for some reason, you think you should. You are the expert of your body.
I believe that it’s crucial that we learn to listen to our body’s wisdom again instead of listening solely to outer influences. For sure it’s crucial to inform ourselves. Knowledge is power and it’s important to educate ourselves on where our food comes from, how it’s been processed, what’s been added, what’s the best way to prepare, how to rebalance certain imbalances in the body with specific nutrients etc. However, make sure that information is coming from a trustworthy source. Unfortunately the food industry doesn’t always have our best interest in mind. You might want to get help from a coach that you trust, and, who can guide you through the maze of nutritional information and misinformation; someone who can support you to interpret your body’s messages, and help you to listen to the internal wisdom of your body; someone who is able to hold space when you feel lost.
Okay, so how can you find out what are the most supportive foods for you at this time? First of all, if you focus on real foods, meaning foods with the least amount of industrial processing and chemical additives, you can’t go too wrong. It’s not about what we do once in a while, maybe having a frozen pizza for dinner because we’re tired, or enjoying a decadent cake on a special occasion. It’s about what we do on a daily basis. It just makes sense to consume natural and clean foods, enjoy the local farmers markets, support the people who are working hard to make our foods from scratch (not so much the big corporations that change whole foods to unrecognizable, engineered, food-like products in order to get people addicted and fill their pockets).
Second, listen to your body. You body talks to you all the time. What we call symptoms are really messages from our body. Things like cravings, headaches, sluggishness, brain fog, inflammation, constipation, bloating, cramps, joint pain, jitters, hair loss, eczema etc. tell you something about what’s going on in your body. It’s telling you that your body needs something to get back into balance. And when we ignore this kind of communication over time, the messages will get louder in the form of serious health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer, autoimmune diseases, mental health issues, … you name it.
So how do you feel? What’s happening in your body? How do you feel after you’ve eaten certain foods? Do you feel nourished and energized? Or do you feel tired and achy? Do you ever get clear messages that a particular food wasn’t beneficial for you at this time?
A food is rarely ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in itself, if it’s a natural, clean food and not engineered junk :) I’m not saying that fast food can’t have a place in our life either. What I mean here is that if you look at food like cabbage, bell pepper, celery, strawberries, almonds, sunflower seeds, brown rice, chicken, eggs, which most people would call ‘healthy’ foods - they are actually not beneficial for everyone, and certainly not all of the time. I can’t hardly think of even one food that is good for everybody at every point in their life, and definitely not an entire diet I would recommend for everyone.
If you want quick weight loss because you want to look good in your wedding dress in a month, a ‘keto diet’ could definitely give you fast results without compromising your health, but, it might not be good for you to restrict carbs in an extreme way on a long term basis. If you decide to ‘go vegan’ to cleanse your body, that could be beneficial for a while, however if you actually can’t digest legumes and grains very well, it could be difficult to sustain over time, and your body might be lacking nutrients if you’re not very careful. If you want to jump on the ‘intermittent fasting’ train, it could work wonders for you - or, it could actually not agree with your body’s blood sugar management or hormones. The ‘paleo diet’ seems like a good concept, eating how our ancestors ate, but maybe it’s too limiting and not practical in your daily life, and, possibly your body is doing just fine with some grains, legumes and dairy, or maybe you can tolerate them once they've been fermented. Eating a ‘raw food diet’ can make sense in order to preserve vitamins, enzymes and probiotics, but eating all foods raw could be hard on your digestive system (especially if you live in Alberta with its harsh winters like I do) and therefore, you might not absorb nutrients, especially minerals, very well. Going on ‘the Mediterranean diet’ sounds great, but what exactly does that really mean? Especially if you don’t live in a Mediterranean climate, and have easy access to Mediterranean foods. I could go on and on, but I think you’re getting my point: It truly depends…
Also you don’t have to follow a diet and you don’t have to do anything extreme. You might notice that you’re doing better with less grains in your life or just without gluten containing grains. It doesn’t mean you have to follow all keto diet guidelines, which vary anyways from keto diet to keto diet. You could give your liver a break from animal products for a few weeks, if you like, and start eating them again when your body is asking for it again. Or maybe you decide you want to avoid only pork, but you’re okay with other meat. Maybe you want to go on a ‘hypoallergenic diet’ for a few weeks and then, one by one, reintroduce the suspected foods again to find out which ones are bothering your body right now. You might want to cut out sugar in your drinks to reduce your sugar intake, but you still want to enjoy your favourite chocolate bar. Maybe you’re going through a chronic disease and might need to be more vigilant with what you eat in order to bring things back into balance.
You see, I don’t have a quick answer to the initial question and I appreciate that you’re still with me here reading this. I believe it’s important to not make a fast judgement and give general nutritional recommendations. If you’d like to chat more about this and how to find the best approach for your body at this time, feel free to reach out. I want to bring this blog post to an end by quoting Michael Pollan, acclaimed author and natural food advocate:
“Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.” I love the common sense and the simplicity in it. We can drive ourselves really crazy with chasing diets or becoming afraid of certain foods or even demonizing whole food groups.
I believe there is a place for everything. I’m even grateful for my experiences with the fad diets or foods that turned out to be depleting for me, because it all taught me so much. I’ve learned that the relationship with our food, our body, and ourself is more important than what we eat; while everything matters, and, everything’s included, if we take real care. Enjoy food and enjoy nourishing your garden within.